Writing by Sophie Rose // Art by Jane Rebecca Schwartz
Dear, dear untraumatized humans of the world,
I love you. I was you.
I’ve got a secret I want to tell you. Something I’ve learned, something I’ve had an incredibly hard time coming to terms with. Something that maybe hasn’t occurred to you, as it hadn’t occurred to me a year ago.
It’s this: trauma does not just happen to a person. It’s not an event, with a start and an end. It endures. It persists. It becomes part of a person. It’s happening to them all the time.
I will never be able to live a life in which I haven’t been raped.
It might be a single second that traumatizes a person. It might be several years. But it’s never over. It lasts long after the news hits, the night ends, the abuse stops.
Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. And the aftermath will vary. It will not always manifest itself in the same way. It will not always be something a person thinks about daily. The only thing to be sure of is that it stays.
Almost ten months ago one night changed the course of my life. Today I want to share some things with you, but only if you want to listen.
i. honesty and secrets
Classic, dismal, small-talk-y questions, the kind that by virtue of their existence have always casually annoyed me, are harder still now.
How do you feel about “Hey! How are you?”
Because I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the fact that most of the time we ask it only to ask it, to be socially-correct, to be ‘polite’; not, usually, because we actually care. We only ever expect a certain answer.
And I also have an issue with the way we react to it, and the fact that we feel obligated to respond with some variation of “fine/good/great!”
Once in university I saw a friendly acquaintance in the student building in September.
“How was your summer?” I asked her, on auto-pilot.
“Honestly, it was terrible,” she replied.
I admired her so much for that. We didn’t know each other, not really, but we talked then, candidly, about how we were doing and about the past few months of our lives, without feeling pressured to say they were great, to fill a silence with polite and casual nothings.
I felt closer to her. Honesty will do that.
I don’t know how to answer the question now because it’s too complicated, and using “I’m okay, how about you?” feels even cheaper than before.
“Hey! How are you doing?”
“Actually, I’m having a decent day, my first one this week, and in this current moment I feel like I can function as a normal human. I don’t feel as aimlessly hollow and lost as I usually do. And that makes me suspicious because usually I just have to pretend that I’m having a decent day, and also under this shell of myself I can actively feel the waves of self-loathing and fear and anger smashing against my bones and reminding me of their existence but I have to act like they aren’t there so I live constantly in a state of confusion and sadness and cognitive dissonance and feel as though my being is almost entirely dictated by a terrible thing someone did to me almost a year ago, how about you?”
I am not okay, and I wish it was okay to own up to that sometimes.
Funny how we promote honesty in our clichés, expect it in our representatives, and so blatantly disavow it in our day-to-day interactions.
I promise to be honest in this piece, as uncomfortable as it might make both of us. In this spectacularly avoidant world we live in, sometimes the truth needs its moment.
In that spirit, I have to admit that I lied to you before.
I told you before that I would keep referring to what happened to me as a rape, to do my part in removing the stigma surrounding the word.
But I haven’t done that. I rarely refer to it as such anymore. Typically I only use the word in my therapist’s office. I couldn’t explain why, except that the word sounds harsh, dirty, raw. It is and was all of those things. I think hearing it hurts the people I love too much. So I don’t want to say it out loud. I euphemize it and call it “Halloween” instead, since that’s when it happened.
I’ve always felt everything incredibly deeply. I’ve always considered myself a little too flighty, too ethereal, for this earthy world.
And one of the best ways to describe one way in which I’ve changed is that I can feel every nook and cranny of the world’s pain now. These overwhelming waves of feeling in my head make it hard to think or to imagine any other way of being.
I want to try to describe it. And honestly it’s one of those things that’s impossible to understand unless you’ve been through it yourself, but I’ll do my best to paint you this excruciating, crucial picture.
A podcast I was listening to depicted being a rape victim/survivor/I’ll use either or both depending on the day so vividly and accurately I felt my breath catch as I listened.
“When it comes to that kind of violation…I always describe it in terms of almost like a Horcrux, where you have Voldemort put part of his soul inside Harry Potter…it lives with you. And…all of a sudden there’s an anger and a rage because of the powerlessness one can feel…I can’t get that out of me. It’s like that the being, monster, darkness, has attached themselves to me and inside of me…and that’s why most people then decide that they don’t want to be in their body, because when they’re present in their body, they have to feel it. You’re going to feel it, and feel like there’s no way out. That it’s never going to get better.”
That anger bit speaks to me. Because I’m so angry. I am so fucking angry that I only get this one life, and he’s tarnished it. This is on that list now, the one we all have, of big things that happened on our journeys, of huge moments that changed how we see the world. The things that segment our lives into the “before” and the “after” they happened.
This did not have to happen to me. This isn’t part of the natural circle of life.
It feels like a baby monster runs around inside of me, poking holes in my personality, my organs, with one spiky hand perpetually stuck to my heart, always squeezing just enough that I notice it.
Some days it feels like I’m sleepwalking, underwater. That everything is so muted, so slow, so pointless, no one could convince me it’s real life. Other days I’m tiptoeing through a minefield of triggers. A beautiful, precious once in awhile I’ll just be me.
It feels like I’m wildly undesirable. To all prospective romantic interests, who surely can’t see me as attractive or as a viable partner. To everyone else, who must consider me too weird or annoying to be a friend.
So yeah, it also feels like I’m detrimentally cynical. What I learned ten months ago is that any person, regardless of how kind they seem, could be capable of doing a criminal thing to another person. So now I feel as though trusting anybody is the most monumental challenge. Because any person out there, any new person I meet, who seems sweet, who seems interested, could conceivably do to me what he did to me.
It feels like I’m trying all the time. And crying all the time. I am trying so hard to heal. Tears always on call. Trying to put on a good face for everyone else. Trying not to let the darkness swallow me up.
It feels like nothing sometimes. Like I am nothing, I will always ever be nothing.
Trying to accept that I will always live with this inside of me. That’s been the hardest. That this is my existence now and someone else decided to make it that way. I’ve been grieving for the girl I was before, the girl I will never see or feel again.
I hate my new self so much sometimes. I hate how she fails and how fragile she is. I hate how she can’t figure out how she feels now about sex. I hate how she can’t see the good in herself, how insecure she is. I hate how she pushes people away. I hate how sad she is all the time. I hate how I haven’t learned how to love her. I don’t know how anyone else will learn to love her. And she aches so, so much to be loved.
I rebel against authority, against anyone who seems to be trying to control me. I can feel resentment churning whenever someone assumes I’ll be available without asking me, whenever anyone disregards my capabilities or my emotions. It’s made me short-tempered, and even more sensitive than the sensitive little smush I was before.
I’m impatient. It feels like this isn’t normal. I hear from others that I’m doing okay. That they’re proud of me. But it feels, some choice days, like I haven’t improved a bit. (That’s because it’s not a linear improvement kind of thing, which is a hell of a tease for a gal’s emotional well-being.)
It feels like I’m always tired. Of pretending, of worrying, of waiting to be better, better, of not feeling whole anymore.
It feels like I’m dissonantly pulled in two directions. My wants and my fears are the same thing somehow, a reality that leaves me breathlessly nowhere, needing things I can’t have, having things I don’t want or need, wanting to have needs I can actually satiate.
It feels like whatever I do is not enough. It feels inadequate, like no matter how much I get done, I’m not eating healthily enough or being social enough. Like I’m not capable of being enough. For myself or for others.
It feels like overwhelming lethargy. I need to remind and to push my body each day to get up, to hustle, to smile, to act like every body. By the end of the day all the reminding and all the pushing and all the acting leaves me too tired to exercise, to go shopping, to do laundry. In all the crooks and crannies of myself I can’t scrounge up the energy that takes.
Going to work, being at work, doing work feels like sensory overload sometimes, and people say, “yeah, but that’s just this industry, it’s crazy,” and no, it’s not just the industry, it’s the industry but it’s also this roaring helplessness in my ears, and I can’t explain that to anyone. All I can say – if I say anything – is that I’m just having a bad day.
It’s having no expectations and still feeling crushing disappointment. When it seems as though a new experience or a big step forward should have fixed me, made me better, healed me, and it didn’t, or when it seems like maybe I have a good thing, and there’s some incarnation of hope bubbling up inside me, and then I’m wrong – I can hear the messy stitches holding my heart together rip themselves away from each other.
I look forward to going to bed every night. I’ve moved. It’s a different bed. Nothing bad has happened to me in this bed. In this bed, at least I can be unconscious for a few hours. At least for a little while I don’t have to actively deal with all these damn feelings.
iii. friends and family
When I wrote about this before I laid out what I needed from the people in my life, since I know it’s hard to know. I said I needed your willingness to be a positive presence; I needed an open mind; I needed you to know that I had a lot on my plate but I wanted for us, for you and I, to be okay with each other. Most importantly I needed you to have faith in me and my experience.
I laid it out because I know how helpless my friends and family feel seeing me in pain.
A lot of my people chose not to listen. And now many of them are no longer my people. I hate blaming anyone else, because they didn’t make this happen to me. Nobody made this happen except him. And we are so ill-equipped to manage this kind of trauma.
But I can’t keep carrying the blame for the ways that my people let me down. I can’t make it my fault, my inadequacy. Not this too.
Some examples of things my best friends did after they found out what happened
– Didn’t believe me; accused me of trying to get attention
– Said they’d stay friends with me but only if we pretended the rape never happened
– Made me feel guilty for wanting to spend time with them, for needing company
– Pushed me to move on faster than I was ready to
– Backed away, disappeared entirely
– Got angry at the ways I’ve changed; demanded I go back to who I was before
– Made excuses for the rapist’s behaviour and actions
– Remained good friends with the rapist
– Admitted they wouldn’t talk to him about or hold him accountable for what he’d done because they wanted to “stay neutral” (hint: when it comes to this, there is no such thing as neutral)
– Told me I deserved it
– Made my pain about them, about how badly I’d wronged them, and demanded I take care of them
To be honest, I didn’t even know that half of these things would bother me, until the bother itself was throwing water in my face and telling me to wake up, stand up for myself.
I resisted the strength that standing up for myself would take. I let things go, I suspended my disbelief, I forgave and forgot.
I spent all of my energy on making sure everyone else was okay.
I consistently put myself in other people’s shoes. But (and saying this makes me sound like a bit of a conceited jerk, but it’s true) I knew – no matter how complicated the situation, no matter how challenging – I knew how much care and attention I’d have given to a friend if this had happened to her. I knew how much I would hold a friend accountable for if he’d done this to somebody else.
Some kind and gentle people have made me realize these past several months that expecting a certain degree of compassion from friends and family was not, in fact, too much to ask.
Cutting people out was never about punishing anyone. It took me some time to really internalize those negative responses, again and again, from people I trusted and depended on, to accept that they were a Molotov cocktail inside me. It became too toxic for me to pretend the way they were acting was okay with me, wasn’t burning me up from the core. I tried for months. It was poison in my veins. I had to let them go.
Others were just too busy with their own lives. That’s our nature. We’re selfish, humans. I’ve tried not to let my own demons keep me from checking in on my friends. But I know how selfish I’ve been. I’ve been realizing recently that sometimes being ‘selfish’ isn’t a bad thing. It just means taking care of yourself first.
To those who have hugged me, asked about me, written to me, loved me, reminded me of your love, thank you. You’ve been such a bright light.
I’m not trying to blame you for not knowing what to do, untraumatized humans. There are plenty of resources online – and I can tell which of you have done your research, and I adore you for that – but ultimately there’s no real, foolproof way for you to understand what I need or why I need it.
It would just be so great if humanity did a better job of teaching you – us – how to manage pain.
iv. how I’ve changed
My family and I have spent upwards of $6,000 on therapy. I don’t have the money to spend on things that aren’t necessities. I have a hard time falling asleep. When I do pass out I’ll be up with nightmares a couple of times an hour. I beat myself up for days whenever I do something embarrassing or foolish.
I don’t get invited out much, but I have missed four friends’ birthday celebrations because simply thinking about being at a club, around people groping, drinking, makes me panic.
It feels now like I can’t count on anyone to treat me right, because what if they don’t?
All of a sudden I have no patience. I have never wanted to hurt a living thing in my life, but now I am anger incarnated – I want to hit, to punch, pillows, walls. I can feel the bubbles of my blood boiling especially when I hear people (men) around me talk about women as if they’re pieces of meat; objects, juicy, flat, immobile, opinionless, able to be eaten or cut or demolished or elsewise dominated at will.
I’m colder. Quieter. Meaner, I think. It’s a coping thing.
I’ve had to familiarize myself with the realities of PTSD – something I previously associated mainly with veterans – because I cope with it daily. I re-experience disturbing memories of the rape over and over. I can’t concentrate, I avoid friends, I freak out around any thing or word that reminds me of that night. I rarely feel pleasure, I worry constantly, and feel always as though something huge is pressing against my chest and making it hard to breathe.
I crave hugs, and want to be held – but only by people I trust. I will recoil and shiver when anybody brushes my shoulder by accident. Crowded spaces give me a sense of anxiety and claustrophobia I’d never experienced before.
I want to feel sexy, but my skin crawls when a person looks at me for a second too long or with an ounce too much hunger.
I feel I’m weak in a sense I’ve never known. How do I manage all that strength all the time? The strength to recognize I’m drowning, then to lift myself up, then to keep myself above water?
I just want someone else to take care of me sometimes. I don’t know how to ask for that.
How can it be okay that he hasn’t had to go through this? That in being a predator, in letting his anger overcome him, in treating me like he did, in suffering no consequences, that it’s my body, my psyche, my soul that has been damaged? I wish I’d thought more seriously about reporting him. I wish that, instead of going to the pharmacy for a pill the next day, I’d gone to hospital for a rape test kit instead.
I don’t know if anyone has held him responsible for what he did to me, if anyone has made him feel as sorry as he deserves to feel for that criminal, inhuman night. I don’t know if anyone has marched him into therapy, has forced him to confront his issues. I wish I could feel comfort in knowing that other girls are safe from him.
v. the cloud
What this feels like most of all is that there’s a cloud always hovering right above my head.
It just sits there. Teetering on the edge of something. Wafting through the gaps of me. It tells me I don’t deserve anything good. It reminds me that hope is probably fruitless. Warns me that negativity is a self-fulfilling prophecy even as it cackles at me, pelts my head with a hail of negative thoughts.
“You, Sophie? You’re too damaged. You’re filthy, and gross, and used. No one will ever want you again.”
I think you guys can sense the cloud. You can tell that it’s there. But you don’t ask me about it. As if maybe I can’t see it there. As if maybe mentioning it will bring back a bad memory for me. As if it’s not already on my mind.
I promise I can feel it there. I promise I already wake up every day thinking about the cloud. I promise that you asking me about it will not make me feel worse. I probably won’t want to discuss it. But knowing that you care enough to notice it does such lovely things to my soul.
I’ve never held back on anything for fear of regret or pain or uncertainty. Love has always been worth the risk. I’m not used to this fresh fortress I’ve built around my heart, and the tiny part of me that is still me, the bit that’s still there but so far inside that its flickering light is imperceptibly dim, the part that wants to be happy and silly and friendly and open and kind and giving again, dies just a little bit more with each stone I add to the wall.
I don’t like it. I can’t help it.
I feel too young to be this jaded.
I feel like I know who else is trying to heal. I feel like I can look at a person and see it. I can tell from the way they hold their heads, how they act when they think no one is looking.
They’ve got clouds too. My cloud raises a taunting, wispy black hand to wave at theirs.
I recognize parts of myself in them. They’re hurting. And their hurt becomes mine too. It overwhelms me. Because how can I possibly help all those hurting people in the world?
But how can I be around anybody who isn’t hurting? The cloud people, they feel like kin to me. It’s dark and it’s heavy, but maybe we can help one another feel the smallest bit less alone.
I was (am?) sort of falling for someone. It’s the saddest and the sweetest sensation. Goofy, affectionate, handsome, kind. I feel less cloudy around him. He smells like trees and spice and cigarettes and his smile is the nicest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to make him feel less cloudy too, but I can’t tell if he wants that. I can’t read people’s intentions as well as I used to.
There is good in the world, I know. It’s harder to find it now, somehow, when I can see so much bad in the world too, and can’t peel my eyes away from the millions (billions?) of people who don’t know how to be kind or how to care about the fact that they’re unkind.
vi. on getting better
As bad as it has felt and continues to feel, it also feels now like it’s not all just bad. It feels like I have this quiet strength I never knew I had. And I’m so proud of that.
I got a tattoo on my inner right ankle a few weeks ago. I designed it. It’s a rose, prickly, persevering – me – surrounded by my family members’ birth month flowers. Though this terrible thing will stay with me, now this beautiful thing I created will stay with me too.
On top of the anxiety I’ve had for years, the depression my experiences have spurned, I’ve recently been able to find that little joyful spark again, the one that makes you feel warm inside, that weightless happiness that washes over you, even if just for a few seconds, that makes you feel like everything will be okay, makes you feel like there’s still some simplicity and wonder in the world.
The smell of the grass right after it rains. The first bite of a chocolate-chip cookie fresh out of the oven. Listening to my music on my awful stereo in my beloved clunk of a car. Sipping cold apple cider on a muggy day barefoot in my childhood home’s backyard. Settling into a pine-scented bath. Autumn days spent in hayfields with my oldest friend. Fresh snow, brilliant television, birthday surprises, cobblestones. A great first kiss. They’ve always been my favourite kind of giddy, joyful lovely. They’re just a complicated lovely now, a confusing and mournful lovely.
This isn’t all that I feel. Every day there’s something new. I can’t pin it all down, I can’t write it all, because it’s too much. It never stops coming.
I went through something. I know I’m not alone in that. I try not to use it as an excuse. I try to make the most of my one-hour-biweekly of therapy and I hope my meds are doing what they’re supposed to do. As much as it takes up my head I try to stay quiet about it.
I know you might still respond to me with the same sense of discomfort, shock, pity, uncertainty, even if my experience wasn’t as stigmatized as it is. But maybe the degree of all those feelings would be lessened, and maybe we’d all feel educated and empathetic enough to try to find a way to come to terms with what trauma means to us and to those who’ve been through it.
The fact that a known sexual assaulter runs our country blows my mind. What higher positive validation or comfort can rapists feel for their criminal actions than the lack of repercussion for a man who assaulted and became the most powerful man in the world?
The justice system has failed so many victims. Morale is low. Stigma rages. Self-harm, depression abound. It’s catastrophically painful that with the world already hurting so badly, so many actively choose to hurt others.
It’s so damn simple. Men, people, all predators: stop raping. There are so many other terrible things we can’t control. We can control this terrible thing. Stop. That’s all. Understand what rape means, what consent is, how to have sex like an adult. A woman does not owe you anything, no matter how she looks at you or what she’s wearing or the way she texted you two weeks ago. If she doesn’t want to give herself to you, if you do not expressly ask her, with words, if she wants you, if she does not expressly tell you, with words, that yes, she wants you, she is not yours to take. It’s not complicated. Stop raping. Be good to each other.
It’s changed my composition. I can feel it in my bones, in my skin. My life does not revolve around the rape anymore, but the rape does revolve around me. And it will stay with me, in some incarnation, in my memories, in my behavior, in my interactions, in my decisions, forever.
Nothing will change the fact that this happened. Now’s about learning how to be okay living with it.
Trauma persists. Even if your friends and family don’t want to talk about it, it’s still there. Even if we didn’t tell you about it when it happened, it’s still there. Even if it was years ago, it’s still there. All you need to do is remember that, and maybe sometimes let that remembrance leak into your interactions with those of us who are on this terrifying rollercoaster back from the dark. Let it cut us some slack when we don’t feel like going out or we take too long to respond to your text or we act weird for a few days.
Let it also help you realize what your own limits are and when you need to take time for yourself. Let it allow you to still treat us as friends, as humans, as strong and worthy. Let it hold us accountable for everything we deserve to be held accountable for in our relationships with you.
Let it remind you that though we manage healing differently, asking what you can do, showing your love, and unconditional “I’m here”s will go unimaginably far for people you feel helpless to help.
I’m so grateful to you for listening.
p.s. to everyone who is feeling anything like what I’m feeling – or even if you’re feeling other things entirely – I’m thinking of you. It’s normal, you are normal, you are extraordinary.